Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 120

bullshitHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

So long, Susy?

Higher education is drowning in bullshit, a partial list.

The puzzle of patriotism.

Put the Ph-ilosophy back into Ph-D.

Science’s inference problem: when data doesn’t mean what we think it does.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

90 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 120

  1. Massimo Post author


    Falsifiability is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion. Astrology is falsifiable, but it’s still a pseudoscience.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Your father and even wide were in situations not reflecting the contemporary situation. Also, a cumulation of anecdotes is not a data set.


  3. labnut


    Per Dan — luck also plays a huge role in a lot of these things

    Good point! But some luck is stage managed! I am talking about networks. A successful person sets up an extensive system of influential networks. Luck flows from the opportunities created by networking. Now it turns out that university is a place where many of these networks are initially established. In addition, certain groups have a rich set of internal networks set up inside the wider culture and they benefit strongly from the networking luck effect.


  4. brodix


    You mean to say people like your grandfather, or even Gates and Jobs, can have useful knowledge and views, even if they are not certified?

    Wow. Maybe there is hope for me. I have drawn enough positive feedback, while much of the negative doesn’t directly address the points I try raising, to think I might have some viable points.


    “Where we fell short every time was in assessing the moral fibre of the person.”

    Interesting there are few effective tests for that, given the degree to which it is foundational to society.

    Considering the apparent lack of it in the current leadership of society, that might say something for deeper forces than we can quantify, at work.


  5. labnut


    Per Dan — luck also plays a huge role in a lot of these things

    To continue. The golfing great, Gary Player, was congratulated on sinking a hole in one, with the remark that it was a lucky shot. He famously replied that luck was where opportunity met preparedness(in fact he was copying an earlier remark by another golfing great). We can agree on that but it is worth extending it by saying that luck is where opportunity meets both ability and preparedness. Gary Player was a humble man so he would never have said that.


  6. labnut

    Also, a cumulation of anecdotes is not a data set.

    This is the old problem of just-so stories. Much of our reasoning is drawn from the well of our own experience. It is a valuable resource that we consult all the time. We should also respect these stories, coming from intelligent and well informed people. But, and this is a big but, we must always ask to what extent their experiences are generalisable. In this case I don’t think it is generalisable because the history of progress tends to show that exceptionable ability outweighs other considerations.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. synred

    Well I wouldn’t say falsifiable is the only standard. Anyway the comment was about a meaning of falsifiable, not about the more general demarcation problem.


  8. synred

    Strange but in the case of philosophy Dan sometimes argues the other side of this issue — and he is right about the pretenders he’s talking about.


  9. brodix


    “A successful person sets up an extensive system of influential networks.”

    What about the opposite and often much more prevalent situation, where people enter into extensive systems of influential networks, without fully appreciating the depth, function and context? Such as a banking and financial system, where over the course of generations and technological advances, the larger economic purposes are forgotten and it simply becomes a race to accumulate metrics of wealth, even to the point of loosing sight of actual value, other than those metrics?

    Shut up and compute, without any sense of what is being computed.

    Another situation where the maps matter more than the territory, until the territory has shifted underfoot enough, that the maps become meaningless, but still those in power cling to them, as basis of their worldview, not to mention power.

    Seems like a similar situation to various other aspects of professional fields. Wonder if there is some pattern of negative feedback to be analyzed?

    It might seem utopian to think outside the box, but what if the box has large gapping holes in it? It’s hard not to at least look outside.


  10. couvent2104

    I also like the Ph.D. piece. I would go further and suggest that Ph.D’s should always include some philosophical study, regardless of the subject area.

    I don’t know.
    Say you are a mathematician and you prove in your Ph.D. some difficult theorem in algebraic geometry for fields of characteristic 2. The chance is (very close to) zero that your work has any relevance for the philosophy of mathematics; likewise the chance that the philosophy of mathematics has any relevance for your proof is (very close to) zero too.

    Similar things could be said about all the Ph.D’s in physics I’ve ever seen.
    Anecdotally: the best physicists I have known were usually the least interested in philosophy. And here’s something I’ve posted before. It comes from Scott Aaronson’s blog:

    On the other hand, when we put an optional ungraded question on the final exam that asked students their favorite interpretation of QM, we found that there was no correlation whatsoever between interpretation and final exam score—except that students who said they didn’t believe any interpretation at all, or that the question was meaningless or didn’t matter, scored noticeably higher than everyone else.

    I’m not disparaging philosophy here, but this is quite suggestive: being interested in the philosophical interpretation of QM is distinct from being interested in QM (and not necessarily conductive of being good at QM). But if such questions and attitudes are distinct, why mix them in a Ph.D.?

    I personally feel every graduate in mathematics and physics should be introduced to the philosophy of their respective fields (we were when I was studying physics) but adding a “philosophy chapter” to Ph.D’s in mathematics or physics would be very artificial in almost all cases. I’m willing to believe that things may be different in other fields. However, why stop at philosophy? Why not add history or sociology too?


  11. labnut


    I only regard something as being pseudo-science, if it is impossible to falsify it in principle.

    Ironically, Steven Hawking said this in 2006

    Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.

    The Beginning of Time –

    His No-Boundary Proposal is enjoying something of a revival. It is a tantalising idea.


  12. Paul Braterman

    @synred, once it is suggested that SUSY particles may have energies too high to ever be detected, we do indeed have a situation where evidence can strengthen the theory but never seriously weaken it. I agree with Boudry that this is one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience, as when Intelligent Design proponent Behe rejects the argument from bad design on the ground that we don’t know the motivations of the designer (“Darwin’s Black Box”, Ch. 10). However, SUSY could in my view still be rescued if it were shown to be an essential part of a larger theory that did have observable implications.

    Disclaimer: I have only a casual layman’s knowledge of fundamental particle physics


  13. Robin Herbert


    I don’t doubt your father’s experience and it may be that he never employed a university educated accountant or business manager.

    But I don’t see how that contradicts my statement which was specifically about large complex businesses.

    The company that employs me employs thousands of people in a dozen different countries and we are not even close to being the largest in our market.

    We have thousands of competitors, some of them corporate giants, breathing down our necks and our customers test the market on a regular basis.

    There is an immense body of knowledge, experience and techniques around how to do this and all of our competitors employ people who have learned these things at University as a minimum standard. For the sake of my continued employment I am glad that our company also employs such people.


  14. Robin Herbert


    “Bill Gates is a Harvard dropout. Steve Jobs was a Reed College dropout.”

    They aren’t the people who do the financial running of the company.

    Have a look at job opportunities in Microsoft for accountants. They require a 4 year accounting or finance related degree.

    That is not degree snobbery, that is what is required to be running the finances of a company like Microsoft.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. brodix


    As an analogy, consider asking geometers of a thousand years ago, computing epicycles, whether they preferred the crystal sphere interpretation, or the mechanical clockwork explanation of epicycles?

    Obviously the math would be the same and those less distracted by such external musings would be more focused, but that didn’t take away the deeper implications.

    That is why, in business, mathematicians are mostly back in accounting.


  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin: The point is whether or not this requires a university education, rather than a technical one. Nothing you have said entails or even suggests the former. Sure, massive corporations need certified accountants. But there’s no reason those accountants need a baccalaureate, as opposed to a technical education.

    The point is moot, regardless. The former is no longer financially viable, and in the US is already beginning to disintegrate. One way or another, professional education of this sort is going to be made shorter and less expensive.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. synred

    When Pauli first suggested the neutrino to explain the apparent non-conservation of energy in beta-decay., it was widely thought they could never be detected. That turned out to be untrue, but even if it hadn’t been detected it would not have been pseudo-science.

    The kind of ‘unjustifiably’ I think of as being an indication of pseudo-science is that which is built into the structure of the so-called theory. E.g., an all powerful ‘God’ who can create that star light in transits or otherwise fix up any observed discrepancies with the biblical account.

    Anything that classifies SUSY as pseudo-science is mistaken. SUSY might be wrong, but it was a good faith effort at science.

    Other test of the SUSY hypothesis might be developed. In the case of Neutrino’s there are lots of other things that are predicted even if we’d been unable to detect neutrinos for purely practical reason.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. SocraticGadfly

    Per Dan and I, and also to riff on Massimo’s past comments about the malleability of much of selfhood? A former newspaper acquaintance of mine went back to school to get a master’s in journalism. (A degree I find unnecessarily, as even a BA in journalism probably is. [Get a BA, or an AA, in English. Take classes in reporting standards, libel law, graphic design, etc. Get a certification.])

    Anyway, said person, as I see on LinkedIn, got his MA in journalism.

    Never went back. Maybe, due to the decline of the field’s jobs, he could’t easily go back.

    Selling books at Barnes and Noble. Does NOT say “store manager.” And per the post earlier this week about Google et al, bookseller at Barnes and Noble can’t be the hottest job in the world.


    Sidebar — Tax credits and a big stick are needed to get corporations to pay for certification upgrades for current employees.


  19. SocraticGadfly

    Well, maybe he is the store manager, reading through his profile.

    That said, B&N has monthly quotas for new memberships that sales staff have to achieve?

    Well, if Amazon is blowing up bookstores, maybe it’s because in part the corporate chains have shot themselves in the foot.

    Yes, Amazon “suggests” BUY THIS. But it’s not a pushy salesperson in your face.


  20. Robin Herbert


    ” The point is whether or not this requires a university education, rather than a technical one.”

    That it what I said. The kind of education required has to be at least of the level offered in degree courses, but I said it does not necessarily have be a university.

    If technical colleges are to do this (and they already provide a good deal of the education required for white collar jobs) then they need to be beefed up considerably.

    What is required are institutions capable of providing science and mathematics education at the highest possible level as well as providing education for a wide range of technical areas.

    They would also need to have a research function as well as providing education on non technical areas such as general reasoning and ethics to provide a rounded education.

    It should not be beyond the abilities of the human race to come up with a kind of educational institution that can do this.


  21. Robin Herbert

    This was supposed to be the role of the “technology university”, the oldest one being the University of Strathclyde which was founded in 1796 to be a university for “useful learning”. It was renamed a technical college in the 19th century, regaining its university status in 1964. My Uncle Nigel reckoned it was probably the best university in the UK, but then he was a graduate.

    This was also the idea behind the university I went to, the University of Technology Sydney.


  22. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin: At the heart of the University and of the baccalaureate is the Studia Humanitatis. This is not required for technical, professional education. Neither is the substantial research infrastructure that we find in the contemporary university.

    Technical, professional education can be provided with a far less expensive, less expansive institution. And that is what is going to have to happen. Indeed, it is happening already, as I indicated. More than half of our students now, take half of their education at community colleges. Eventually, the entirety of technical, and professional education will take place in such institutions. Leaving the university to return to its traditional functions.


  23. pete1187

    @Paul Braterman

    I definitely understand your implication that saying something like “SUSY particles may forever be outside atom smashers we can build” pushes the idea into pseudoscientific territory. Only it really doesn’t, because the very question of what is going on at the highest energy scales (near the beginning of time/the Big Bang) means that we need to actually achieve those energies. And every single ToE under consideration has to reckon itself with that. It won’t help to move on to Loop Quantum Gravity or Asymptotically Safe Gravity because you’ll still have to test these theories in the necessary energy regime. So that argument against SUSY (or String Theory) can be applied to any other attempt at Quantum Gravity.

    What we could try to do it figure out what sorts of low energy, highly-sensitive experimental setups might be able to pick up certain phenomena that are predicted by a particular ToE, especially if the price/engineering requirements of larger and larger particle accelerators becomes too much…

    Liked by 1 person

  24. wtc48

    Socratic: “Yes, Amazon “suggests” BUY THIS. But it’s not a pushy salesperson in your face.”

    The surest way to push the customer out of the bookstore. Not all salable products are fungible: what works for cars is poison for books (does anyone ever buy a car online?)


  25. Paul Braterman

    One last thought on the Ph in PhD: When I taught chemistry, I did not explicitly discuss the philosophy of the subject (nor am I qualified to do so), but I did discuss the history of the subject and the motivation of the actors. I think this might be more useful, as well as illustrating philosophical disputes in action. The case of Fritz Haber, for example, raises interesting questions in moral philosophy, including, as it happens, the nature of patriotism.

    And why only PhDs? I did this with my freshman class


  26. Bunsen Burner

    In IT I’ve observed demands for credentials go from anything programming related, to an undergraduate degree, to an honours com. sci. degree, to a to top honours degree… The reason has to do with the increase in candidates. When a hiring manager gets a 1000 CVs they need some way to filter them to a manageable number. The universities haven’t exactly helped either. Instead of making the higher degrees harder to achieve, they’ve reduced the syllabus and made them easier. So now we are faced with a flood of highly credentialed but more incompetent candidates. So industry is hardly happy about universities turning into diploma mills.


  27. brodix


    At what point do things like multiverses become the equivalent of that all powerful god? An enormous fudge factor to explain away what is unseen or unexplained. Then how do we decide whether that fudge factor is something real, or evidence of the original theory being falsified?

    Someone up thread made the point that if we are going to have “philosophy of” courses, why not “history and sociology of” courses. Given the degree to which social pressures often decide such issues, generally in favor of the current direction, over turning back, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.


  28. synred

    Paul: I never encountered a pushy salesman in a bookstore and as my wife was obsessed with books, I’ve been in a lot of them.


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